Justice and the Lesson of Al Capone

Behind the tweets as the Manhattan DA convenes a grand jury

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Ninety years ago, on June 16, 1931, Al Capone pled guilty for tax evasion, then later changed his plea to not guilty. On October 18, 1931, he was convicted, and five weeks later was sentenced to 11 years in federal prison. After serving seven years, six months and 15 days, including a stint at Alcatraz, he was released—a deteriorated version of his former self, suffering mentally from the consequences of syphilis. Barely seven years later, at the age of 48, he died in Florida.

Few would doubt that the ruthless Capone was connected to more egregious crimes than tax evasion. Two years before he pled guilty in 1931, seven members of the Bugs Moran gang were machine-gunned to death in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre in Chicago, a bloody event generally connected to the Capone mob. It was far from the only act of violence linked to the Brooklyn-born mobster who’d gained power in Chicago, but it took his crossing the IRS to finally bring him down.

The Tuesday news that Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance was convening a grand jury to consider the indictment of Donald Trump and other associates of the Trump Organization offers encouragement that the former White House occupant may finally be held accountable for some of his criminal activity. Few among the hopeful would doubt there are more egregious crimes than tax or bank fraud, to name two reasons for which he could face indictment; incitement of a deadly insurrection as well as his reckless and conscious refusal to address the coronavirus and save lives come to mind.

But the convening of the grand jury over possible indictments raises the real possibility that his time on the public stage and his potential to hold public office again would be cut short. That may not exactly sound like justice served, but it would be a start.

It also reawakens the question of how his dedicated supporters would respond. Indictment, conviction and imprisonment would likely not stop the most aggrieved among his cult from seeing political violence as a necessary response to the crimes committed against their leader. Even if he’s no longer available to incite his mob, the damage may already be done—and both the violent extremists and those who are fine with their methods may be long with us.

Recall my conversation with Frank Figliuzzi, the former FBI assistant director of counterintelligence, who described the likelihood of “a semi-permanent insurgency” in the U.S.: “I don't see this going away. Early on, before Trump left office, I said his departure from office would not make this go away and could, quite frankly, embolden people. And it has.”

As we have seen—in the willingness to spout and cling to the Big Lie, minimize the violent truth of January 6 and aggressively pursue voter suppression—there are plenty among the Republican Party leadership demonstrating their willingness to emulate his anti-democratic methods, urge their followers to ignore their eyes and ears, and use violent rhetoric to grab attention.

I’m among those who was so outraged by Trump over the last four years that it took me a while to fully grasp how willing his party was to go along with him. That power-grabbing readiness to abandon governance, further enrich the wealthiest among us at the cost of everyone else, and toss aside even the façade of serving the public’s interest has been underway for decades. Culture wars, stoking racism and exacerbating the identity-driven urban-rural divide may have provided distractions from the methodical effort to increase the GOP’s power and wealth, but now the curtain has been pulled away to fully reveal the corruption of power.

What remains is a fundamental battle for the survival of our democracy and the possibility of building a country with one set of rules for both the powerful and the vulnerable. Accountability and justice emanating from the Manhattan DA may provide a kickstart for the team that still believes in America.


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